Our Glorious Grasses ~ Bushy Bluestem

A favorite photo of early blooming bushy bluestem at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

One of our most dramatic fall grasses, bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) thrives across the southern half of Texas. Unlike other species in the bluestem genus, A. glomeratus prefers sunny, moist locations; it often decorates ditches or fills low, damp fields with its unmistakable foliage.

During the growing season, the grass develops in pretty green bunches, sometimes tinged with tones of blue or copper. In autumn, its feathery plumes emerge — sometimes quickly and dramatically — showing why the grass also is known as ‘beardgrass.’ Eventually, it takes on an attractive rusty color that endures throughout the winter.

Like other bluestems, the grass is beneficial to a wide variety of wildlife, giving food, shelter, and nesting material to small mammals, insects, and birds.

A grasshopper gloms on to a sheaf of A. glomeraus stems at Bastrop State Park in October

Despite its bunched-up appearance and growth habits that sometimes make details hard to discern, its feathery seeds are extraordinarily pretty, especially when seen against a blue sky and still-green foliage.

A glimpse of autumn gold at the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge

 

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A Sign of the Season

At first glance, a storm appears to be rising behind this egret at the edge of Big Slough in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. In fact, the darkened skies were caused by smoke; given the pure blue skies in every other direction, the smoke was a clear sign of a prescribed burn taking place on refuge land.

The use of fire as a management tool benefits the land in a number of ways. It reduces competition between weedy and native species, allowing native plants to thrive; it returns nutrients to the soil, and improves wildlife habitat.

Many native grasses and wildflowers have such deep root systems they’re unaffected by fast-moving fires, and most animals and birds are able to flee. Burns are planned to minimize the threat to mating or nesting birds, and burn sites often are interspersed with plots that provide refuge for wildlife. Due to the fast-moving nature of such fires, animals such as mice, snakes, and lizards can burrow underground to escape.

For every burn, temperature, humidity levels, wind speed and direction, soil moisture, rain chances, and other factors are taken into account. Even the movement of smoke is important; planning always involves any communities that might be affected. (For a sense of the complexity involved with prescribed burns, this article from the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife is instructive. For a sample of a Texas Parks & Wildlife letter sent to burn ‘neighbors,’ click here.)

Because of the complex planning necessary and the possibility of rapidly changing weather conditions, burns sometimes are cancelled at the last minute. When the conditions are right, as they were the weekend of November 13-14, planners rejoice, and the evidence of their planning fills the skies. Because refuge and park lands are so expansive, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact location of a burn, but general areas are easy to spot: Galveston State Park, various refuges, wildlife management areas, and even a few parcels of private land.

A newly-ignited refuge fire seen from Brazoria County Road 208
A later view of the same fire from Hoskins Mound Road, showing different ignition points

The color and density of the smoke adds information for those viewing from a distance. The nature and amount of the fuel make a difference; newly ignited fires tend to billow, while a dying fire produces increasingly thin veils of smoke. The most memorable fire I’ve viewed took place at the Aransas Wildlife Refuge many years ago. In that instance, an absence of wind allowed billows of smoke to build so high that a small pyrocumulus cloud developed.

From time to time during the day, I stopped to watch the fires; by late afternoon, all were nearly extinguished. In the meantime, it was interesting to see them from different perspectives, rising above the same sort of plant communities that would benefit from their presence.

The next week, while crossing the Seabrook-Kemah bridge on Texas 146, I happened to look to the east, across Galveston Bay. On a far shore, more than twenty miles away, plumes of smoke were rising. Conditions must have been just right; some portion of the Anahuac Wildlife Refuge had been gifted with fire.

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Leaving and Leafing

Poison ivy ~ Toxicodendron radicans

Falling leaves, colorful leaves, leaves to rake and burn: all signal summer’s leave-taking. Here on the Texas coast, much of our seasonal color is produced not by vibrant and dramatic hardwoods, but by vines twining through the landscape.  Virginia creeper, dewberry, and poison ivy add a touch of color to the autumn palette.

On the other hand, autumn also is a time for trimming and clearing. With seasonal rains and warm temperatures often lingering into November, new growth is everywhere. Some appears green, like the leaves of this poison ivy vine growing up the trunk of a hackberry tree.

Other new growth is more colorful. Trimmed-back peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea) often fills ditches and woodland edges with its own version of autumn red.

In the midst of a local woods, this young willow oak leaf (Quercus phellos) also provides a bit of autumn color. Its elegant, starry shape would make it a perfect ornament for any Christmas tree, as well as a lovely addition to our celebration of autumn.

 

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A Beautiful — and Useful — Bean

Pink fuzzybean ~ Strophostyles umbellata

Only three species are included in the genus Strophostyles, and all three are found in Texas. Popularly known as fuzzybeans because of the texture of their seed pods, they can be difficult to distinguish from one another, particularly since their flowers are similar.

One  way is to note differences in their leaves and bracts. The amberique-bean, sometimes called the sand or trailing fuzzybean (S. helvola) and the slickseed or small-flower fuzzybean (S. leiosperma) have bracts at the base of the flowers that tend to be acute, while those of the pink, or trailing, fuzzybean (S. umbellata) are more blunt.

I found this pair of what I believe to be pink fuzzybeans near the entrance to the Big Thicket’s Solo Tract on September 6. Despite their small size, their shape and color attracted my attention. Only later did I learn that the Houma people of Louisiana made a decoction of the seeds to treat typhoid, and the Iroquois used the leaves to treat poison ivy rashes. I’m not worried about typhoid, but given my limited ability to spot poison ivy in the wild, a fuzzybean poultice might be as useful as the flower is beautiful.

 

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A Little Spot of Sunshine

During a visit to the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge on September 29, 2019, I noticed a ditch filled with pretty yellow flowers. The colony was perhaps twenty feet long, and the low-growing plants held one bloom per stem. Less than an inch across, the combination of tiny ray flowers and conical disk flowers was cute as could be; the disk flowers reminded me of the radar domes found on boats.

As sometimes happens, it took time to identify the plant. It wasn’t until this fall that I recognized it as Opposite-leaf Spotflower. First named Anthemis repens by Walter Thomas in Flora Caroliniana in 1788, today it’s listed as Acmella oppositifolia (Lam.) R.K. Jansen var. repens or more simply as Acmella repens.

In the southern United States, Opposite-Leaf Spotflower grows on river banks, along pond edges, and in wet ditches. Its ability to survive occasional saltwater inundation no doubt helps it to thrive in Brazoria County, where I’ve now discovered it in every refuge, as well as in occasional country ditches.

As for identification, it was technology to the rescue. The only one of my field guides that mentions the plant is Ajilvsgi’s Wildflowers of Texas — where it’s called Creeping Spotflower — but I missed finding it there, and various keyword searches online didn’t turn it up. I tucked its photo into the “Unidentified Plants” file on my computer, where it lingered for months.

Then, after downloading the app called Picture This to my first iPhone, I decided to try taking a photo of the flower: not from its natural location, but from my computer file. Within seconds I had a name, and in only a minute or two more I’d found its image and details on a multitude of sites. It was a delicious irony. My pretty yellow phone — which I’ve named ‘Sunshine’ — had allowed me to spot the pretty yellow Spotflower at last.

 

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